The XX Factor

J.J. Abrams Misses His Chance to Make Star Wars History

Imagine: Female stormtroopers. Not so weird, right?

Photo by Mark Ashman/Disney Parks via Getty Images

Tuesday, the cast list for the new J.J. Abrams–helmed Star Wars movie, Star Wars Episode VII, was released, and it was immediately apparent that Abrams and company had zero intention of improving the lopsided gender ratio of the previous movies. The new cast list only has one female member on it, bringing the sum total of major female characters in the new movie, with Princess Leia coming back, to a whopping two. Two whole women.

Female Star Wars geeks immediately went into protest mode, with Annalee Newitz of io9 writing, “Are we seriously still pretending that the universe is comprised almost entirely of men (and mostly white men at that)? Mythic tales are supposed to open up possibilities, not shut them down.”

It’s been 24 years since Katha Pollitt came up with the “Smurfette principle”: the rule that “a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female.” The Smurfette principle is alive and well for this second generation of Star Wars heroes. Newitz speculates that the one new female cast member, Daisy Ridley, will be playing Princess Leia’s daughter, meaning that she’ll pretty much just be Leia II. Abrams shot back to the outrage by saying that there’s still a substantial role that he’s auditioning for and that it will be a female one. So, instead of one woman out of seven new characters, we’ll get to see two women out of eight. That’s doing better than The Avengers, but it still leaves much to be desired.

This isn’t just about Star Wars, or even just about movies. Right now, the sci-fi and fantasy fan base is embroiled in a long-burn debate over sexism in its community, and having a major sci-fi product like Star Wars embrace gender equity—or something even approaching it—could have had a huge impact on making women feel more welcome to show their geekier sides. 

The most painful thing is knowing it doesn’t have to be this way. When Ronald Moore rebooted the ‘70s era sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica in 2004, he made the decision to reinvent the world to be a more gender-equal one, a decision that required turning some of the classic characters on the original series from men to women. Fans of the original series revolted, particularly incensed that the cocky Han Solo–style pilot, Lt. Starbuck, was turned into a woman named Kara Thrace. But, in the end, it turned out to be the right decision. The reboot was a critical and commercial success, and the new Starbuck has eclipsed the old one in popularity. The fear that male fans will turn away in droves if asked to follow female heroes, even ones who defy gender stereotypes, proved to be completely overblown. 

No one is even asking that Abrams turn Han Solo or Luke Skywalker into a woman. This new series gives him a chance to create a whole new character list from scratch, which would have been the perfect opportunity to inject more gender balance into the mix. It’s been almost 10 years since Battlestar Galactica showed the way, so why haven’t we seen more progress in the world of space operas since then? At least Adam Driver got another role.